The Creator’s Authorized Realistic Account of Creation: Interpretation of Genesis 1–3 Is Neither Literal Nor Figurative

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Would a reasonable Christian read John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress allegorically or figuratively? The answer is: Neither, because the adverbs “allegorically” and “figuratively” describe not how to read his similitude but how Bunyan wrote it. Thus, he requires us to read it for what it actually is, an allegory. Authors of literature, not readers, have authority over their texts to assign symbolic or figurative properties to settings, events, persons, and things they embed within their texts. Readers are obligated to comprehend how an author represents the world being portrayed textually, whether the realm portrayed is fictional or real. Thus, we are not at liberty to read The Pilgrim’s Progress according to our whims. We are not free to assign our own arbitrary meanings to the author’s text. Bunyan wrote it as an allegory. He assigned figurative representational significances to the settings, events, persons, and things. Readers do not have that role.

However, many Christians who honor the inviolability of what Bunyan wrote do not honor the creation-fall accounts of Genesis 1–3 with the same sanctity. Some seize authority over the biblical text by engaging in “figurative interpretation,” while others do essentially the same thing under the banner of “literal interpretation.” Both approaches are mistaken and misguided because interpretation is neither literal nor figurative. We do not have the authority to determine how we are to read the text; this authority is embedded into the text by the author. Thus, whether we are to interpret the passage “literally” or “figuratively” is a confusing, misleading, and mistaken debate. Interpretation of Genesis 1–3 is neither literal nor figurative. In this article, I will show that it is an error for us to dispute whether we should interpret Genesis 1–3 literally or figuratively. I will show that interpretation is neither literal nor figurative. Evangelicals who contend that the text of Genesis obligates us to read it literally misspeak. What they mean is that the biblical text portrays God’s creative acts literally, which is to say, factually. Creation really took place as Genesis portrays it. So, as you read this article, you will recognize that I more fully direct the needed corrective toward those who contend that Genesis 1-3 calls for a figurative interpretation.

But first, let’s consider some context.

Philo’s Platonic Influence on Ancient Christians

The debate is ancient, and Christians have been posing and debating this since the second century. Exegetes of the Alexandrian school were under varying degrees of pagan Platonic influence through Philo, who viewed the Creator too lofty to be fully accountable for the creation of Adam. Philo believed God distanced himself from the creation of Adam more so than the creation of all other things. Philo infers that when God said, “Let us make man,” the plural “us” includes “other beings to himself as assistants,” such that they bear the blame for Adam’s disobedient acts.[1] Second-century Gnostics expanded on Philo’s inference by positing the presence and influence of demiurges, heavenly beings who shaped and control the material universe.

1. Philo, “On the Creation,” The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, trans. C. D. Yonge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), 11.

Some Ancient Christians—Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine—accepted Philo’s teaching that God created everything in one simultaneous action.[2] They explain the six days of Genesis 1 not as a chronological timespan but as a symbolic framework, featuring creation’s increasing worth, with humans ranked highest.[3] Reflecting Philo’s Platonic influence, Origen regards the biblical account as not factually accurate. Mockingly, he inquires, “Now who is there, pray, possessed of understanding, that will regard the statement as appropriate, that the first day, and the second, and the third, in which also both evening and morning are mentioned, existed without sun, and moon, and stars—the first day even without a sky?”[4] Again, with derision, he asks who could be “so ignorant as to suppose that” God planted trees in a garden with fruit sustaining life or bringing death, or that God walked in the garden and found Adam hiding under a tree? Origen is confident that this portrayal is too fantastic for anyone to fail to recognize that these are “related figuratively in Scripture, that some mystical meaning may be indicated by it.”[5] For Origen, God’s authorized portrayal of his creative acts requires an allegorical interpretive grid to determine its proper meaning.

2. Ibid., 4.

3. Clement of Alexandria, The Stomata, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, comp. A. Cleveland Coxe, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 6.16; Augustine, The Literal meaning of Genesis, trans. and ann. John Hammond Taylor, vol. 1 (New York: Paulist, 1982), 1.135–36.

4. Origen, “De Principiis,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 4, comp. A. Cleveland Coxe, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 4.1.16.

5. Ibid.

Candid Acknowledgements that the Writer of Genesis Portrays Reality

Geologists, archaeologists, cosmologists, and biologists pose a worldview that rivals the Bible’s account of creation. This prompts efforts by many Christians to harmonize scientists’ claims concerning the beginnings of all things and Scripture’s account of creation. Two conflicting approaches dominate and polarize debates over the origins of the universe and of life. Many evangelicals improperly insist on a “literal interpretation” of the creation accounts, while many others counter with a “figurative interpretation” concerning the biblical text. Both are missteps.

Even though he accepted the theory of evolution, Marcus Dods admits that every effort to harmonize Scripture’s account of creation with the modern theory of evolution is “futile and mischievous” because all such efforts fail to convince but “prolong the strife between Scripture and science.”[6] He warns, “And above all, they are to be condemned because they do violence to Scripture, foster a style of interpretation by which the text is forced to say whatever the interpreter desires, and prevent us from recognising the real nature of these sacred writings.”[7] He calls interpreters who adjust the Genesis account of creation to fit the modern scientists’ beliefs concerning origins are Scripture’s “worst friends who distort its words.” For example, if the word “day” in Genesis 1–2 does not refer to an earth-day, a period of twenty-four hours, “the interpretation of Scripture is hopeless.”[8]

6. Marcus Dods, The Book of Genesis, The Expositor’s Bible (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1888), 4.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

Likewise, much more recently, on April 23, 1984, James Barr, who rejects the historicity of the accounts in Genesis 1–11, wrote a letter to David C. C. Watson (Wheaton, IL) in which Barr affirms that, as a Hebrew scholar, his judgment is that the author of the ancient text meant for his portrayal to be believed as historical. He wrote,

[S]o far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Gen. 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story (c) Noah’s flood was understood to be worldwide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark.[9]

Barr affirms the same in published books.[10] For example, he contends,

9. Letter cited by C. John Collins, Science and Faith: Friends or Foes? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), 364–65.

10. James Barr, Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978), 42; Beyond Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), 131, 137.

From the genealogies of Genesis the reader could reckon the time down to the flood; from the flood he could reckon on to the exodus, and from there to the building of Solomon’s temple. The figures were meant to be exact and to be taken literally. They do not mean anything at all unless they mean actual numbers of years. Thus to say that Abraham was 75 years old when he migrated from Haran into Canaan (Gen. 12.4) means exactly that, namely that he was 75 years old at that point, and to say that Israel’s stay in Egypt lasted 430 years (Exodus 12.40) means exactly that, that there were 430 years from the time they went in until the time when they came out again. But we have to be aware of the difference between intention and historical truth.[11]

Despite these honest concessions that Genesis 1–11 was written as history, with the expectation that readers should accept the accounts as truthful, many evangelicals have not hesitated to follow the beliefs of Dods and Barr rather than the beliefs of Scripture’s writer, Moses. Douglas Kelly rightly states, “A large percentage of conservative evangelical scholars refuse to interpret the Genesis text in its plain historical or literal sense in order to accommodate it to the premises of the reigning world view concerning origins.”[12]

11. James Barr, Biblical Chronology: Legend or Science? (The Ethel M. Wood Lecture 1987; London: University of London, 1987), 5.

12. Douglas Kelly, Creation and Change: Genesis 1.1–2.3 in the Light of Changing Scientific Paradigms, reprinted 2010 (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1997), 46.

Contemporary Accommodating of Scripture to Scientism

Evangelicals who receive Genesis 1–11 as factually portraying God’s creative work should be commended. Yet, defending “literal interpretation” to counter “figurative interpretation” prolongs the misguided debate and tends to induce many Christians to suppress Scripture’s realistic portrayals of God’s creative actions and historical accounts throughout Genesis 1–11. Even so, far more egregious is the subjugation of God’s authorized realistic accounts in Genesis 1–3 to evolutionary interpretations of valid fields of study—geology, archaeology, cosmology, and biology. Thus, by demonstrating that the debate is properly located within the author’s domain and not the reader’s realm, this essay necessarily corrects both errors while concentrating on the flagrant one.

Because they refuse to heed Dods’s warning, many evangelicals accommodate the six days of creation to the billions of years demanded by evolutionary scientists. Thus, they look for wiggle room in the biblical text to warrant their need to interpret Genesis 1–3 figuratively. So, Johnny Miller and John Soden claim,

We believe that there are indications in Genesis 1 that the text is not to be taken literally. . . . We believe that understanding Genesis 1 in its original language and setting leads us to conclude that it is a broadly figurative presentation of literal truths; it is highly stylized and highly selective. It does not report history as a journalist might. . . . We believe that the text itself leads us to a more figurative approach. . . . [T]he text of Genesis 1 . . . was meant to be understood by its original readers in a broadly figurative way.[13]

13. Johnny Miller and John Soden, In the Beginning . . . We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original Context (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012), 47, 48, 49. Emphasis added.

The highlighted expressions obscure, equivocate, and confuse. Without realizing it, these authors accept and promote a misguided debate in their efforts to be considered rational thinkers and Christians simultaneously. They relocate the matter of literal and figurative from the domain of God’s authorized portrayal of the reality of his creative deed to the realm of human interpretation of Scripture. This is not merely a distinction without a crucial difference.

We, like Scripture, regularly blend literal and figurative portrayals of reality into a seamless and harmonious combination without rendering indiscernible realistic and symbolic representations of reality. Figurative representations of reality do not render reality unreal, nor do literal portrayals of reality render reality more real. Literal and figurative are harmoniously blended ways of representing reality in speech or texts across genres, including history or fiction. Thus, literal and figurative are not two different ways of interpreting portrayals of reality. This is true because literal and figurative are properties belonging to speaking and writing. They are not the functioning actions of interpreters who hear or read spoken or written representations of reality. Instead, literal and figurative are ways of referring to things, not ways of interpreting written or oral presentations. Instead, figurative and literal are ways of presenting or portraying reality regardless of the genre, whether fiction, history, science, or divine revelation. Literal representations are factual portrayals that regularly assign symbolic or figurative functions to elements within a representation. Thus, although The Pilgrim’s Progress is fictional, it is a realistic and accurate portrayal of the Christian life in keeping with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Bunyan adeptly ascribes figurative and symbolic functions to events, characters, places, animals, inanimate things, etc. Thus, we read his similitude for what it is, an allegory, but we do not interpret it allegorically. Likewise, God authorized the writing of Genesis 1–3 as an accurate and realistic portrayal of his creative acts and interactions with his created humans. Thus, we have no authority over the text to interpret it literally or figuratively.

Tremper Longman, III, who accommodates Scripture’s creation account to an evolutionary explanation, agrees with Dods and Barr that Genesis 1–2 obligate readers to acknowledge that the six days of God’s creative acts exclude evolutionary theories that require billions of years.

The first creation account (Gen 1:1–2:4a) famously describes the creation of the cosmos and of humanity. It is absolutely correct to say that the author wants us to think of ‘literal days,’ that is, days of twenty-four-hour duration. This, after all, is the import of the repeated refrain ‘there was evening, and there was morning—the x day’ (1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31).[14]

14. Tremper Longman, III, “What Genesis 1–2 Teaches (and What It Doesn’t),” in Reading Genesis 1–2: An Evangelical Conversation, ed. J. Daryl Charles (Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson, 2013), 105.

This penchant among evangelical scholars for subjecting Genesis 1–2 to evolutionary science has brought about a resurgence of the Alexandrian school of biblical interpretation counter to the Protestant Reformation. Though since the Reformation, biblical scholars have viewed Origen’s interpretation of Scripture as flawed and fanciful, many evangelicals now promote Origen’s reading of Genesis 1–2 as a model to emulate. Against his acknowledgment that the author of Genesis portrays the days of creation as six days of twenty-four-hour duration, Longman rejects this because he embraces evolution. With Origen, he is incredulous that anyone would believe that God created all things in six successive days of twenty-four hours each since the sun did not exist until the fourth day, according to Genesis 1. He approvingly quotes Origen: “To what person of intelligence, I ask, will the account seem logically consistent that says there was a first day and a second day and a third day in which also evening and morning are named, without a sun, without a moon and without stars and even in the case of the first day without a heaven?”[15]

15. Longman cites Origen, De Principii 4.1.16, from a translation by Conor Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 381.

Again, following Origen’s lead, Longman reasons,

As is well known, Gen 2–3 describes God in anthropomorphic terms. He creates Adam by blowing on dust. . . . This description is inspired by Babylonian creation stories, and it pictures God as a human being who has a body with lungs so he can breathe into dust. Of course, God does not really have a body, so that account of Adam’s creation must be figurative.[16]

16. Longman, “What Genesis 1–2 Teaches (and What It Doesn’t),” 106.

Longman insists that “the intention of the inspired author is not to inform the reader how God made the first human being” but only something about “the nature of humanity.”[17] He claims the text’s description of God’s forming Eve from a portion of Adam’s side is not to be received as “telling us how God created the first woman.”[18]

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

By claiming that the text requires a figurative interpretation because the portrayal entails the figure of speech called anthropomorphism, Longman commits a category error. Scripture’s figurative portrayal of God as condescending to bear human likeness does not at all call for a figurative interpretation. Like Origen, Longman fails to acknowledge that everywhere God reveals himself he does so anthropomorphically by taking on the form and qualities of his crowning creation, humanity, even before he created humans on the sixth day. I have addressed this at length elsewhere, but in summary: “Because God formed Adam from the ‘dust of the earth’ and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, making him in his own image and likeness, God makes himself known to his creatures in their likeness, as if he wears both their form and qualities, when in fact they wear his likeness.[19] God took on the bodily form of the one he was about to shape from the dust of the earth so that when he would breathe the breath of life into the newly formed being, the man could see his Creator who made himself appear like the man he was shaping from the dust of the ground.

19. A. B. Caneday, “Veiled Glory: God’s Self-Revelation in Human Likeness—A Biblical Theology of God’s Anthropomorphic Self-Disclosure,” in Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity, eds. John Piper, Justin Taylor, and Paul Kjoss Helseth (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2003), 161.

Conclusion

Marcus Dods, James Barr, Tremper Longman III, and numerous others acknowledge that the author of Genesis 1-3 intended that we should read the creation and fall accounts at face value, that God created everything within the span of six days of twenty-four-hours each. Yet, they reject the biblical account of creation as presented. They do not accept the biblical portrayal of the beginnings as authoritative. Why? Though it is stark to say this, they do not accept the text’s account as written. Their authority is the shifting sands of scientists’ explanations of the beginnings. Since they admit that we correctly read the text at face value, let us cease debating whether we should interpret Genesis 1–2 literally or figuratively. That is the wrong question. It incites and prolongs pointless and endless debates. The question is improper because literal and figurative are properties that do not belong to the interpreter’s discretion. Instead, we are obliged to acknowledge that we are to read the text as written, which includes literal and symbolic aspects that are properties belonging to the author’s descriptive portrayal of reality. To interpret speech or a text accurately, we must represent the speaker’s or writer’s realistic portrayal of reality done figuratively or literally. Christians who oppose a figurative interpretation of Genesis 1-3 are correct to do so. However, they needlessly sustain confusion by insisting that we should interpret Genesis 1–3 literally. We are to read the text as written, which includes accepting its claim to presenting factual history that actually happened.

The right question is not: Should we interpret Genesis 1–3 literally or figuratively? Instead, given the chasm that divides evangelicals concerning how we understand the creation account, this is the question: Does Genesis 1–3 factually portray God’s creative activity literally, or is it a mythical representation that we should not believe at face value? Scholars like Marcus Dods of the nineteenth century, James Barr of the twentieth century, and Tremper Longman III of the twenty-first century acknowledge that the author wrote the text to be understood at face value. They explicitly concede that such a reading is correct, but they reject it as truthful. Therefore, let us cease debating whether we should interpret Genesis 13 literally or figuratively and locate the debate within the proper domain, which is the authority, clarity, and sufficiency of God’s revelation. Does the biblical account of creation present the days of God’s creative activity truthfully with symbolism embedded within aspects of God’s creation, or does the Bible accommodate beliefs of ancient scientists that modern scientists claim to have discredited? Does Scripture’s narrative factually portray the Creator forming Adam from the ground and breathing into him the breath of life, or should we follow Origen and Longman, who mock accepting the account as factual?

To pose these questions exposes truth and fallacy. The magnitude of the mistake may pass by many of us because evangelicals have become so accustomed to disputes between literal interpretation versus symbolic interpretation of the creation account, which is a false dilemma and misguided debate. Literal and figurative are ways that the writer of Genesis refers to things, how Moses factually portrays the reality of God’s creative acts and infused things made with symbolism. God’s authorized realistic account of his creative acts employs literal representations and portrayals that entail various figures of speech. No one has the liberty to interpret any portion of Genesis 1–2, either literally or figuratively.We are obligated to read the text as written. Thus, the real issue under debate is not our interpretation of Genesis 1–3 but our submission to the biblical text’s factual and authoritative representation. The issue at stake is this: Do we believe the Creator’s authorized, factual portrayal of how God created all things, or do we prefer to believe modern scientists’ dubious and shifting representation of how all things self-assembled beginning billions of years ago, including both the world and all living creatures and plants that populate the earth? Which is the authority for our confidence? On what authority does our faith rest concerning the beginnings of God’s creation? Is it scientists’ fluctuating interpretations of God’s created world? Or is the authority for our confidence the factual account of Genesis 1–3 authorized by God? Scripture, not the shifting sands of scientism, sufficiently grounds our faith.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Ardel Caneday

    Ardel Caneday continues as an adjunct faculty member at University of Northwestern after recently retiring from his role as Professor of New Testament & Greek. Ardel completed the MDiv and ThM at Grace Theological Seminary and the PhD in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a founding teaching elder of Christ Bible Church (Roseville, MN). He co-edited with Matthew Barrett Four Views on the Historical Adam, co-authored with Thomas R. Schreiner The Race Set Before Us, and has published many articles in Christian magazines, journals, books, and online.

Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday

Ardel Caneday continues as an adjunct faculty member at University of Northwestern after recently retiring from his role as Professor of New Testament & Greek. Ardel completed the MDiv and ThM at Grace Theological Seminary and the PhD in New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a founding teaching elder of Christ Bible Church (Roseville, MN). He co-edited with Matthew Barrett Four Views on the Historical Adam, co-authored with Thomas R. Schreiner The Race Set Before Us, and has published many articles in Christian magazines, journals, books, and online.